01/12/2008, 00.00
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Ho Chi Minh City, prayers and protests from the Catholics, the first since 1975

by J.B. An Dang
In the former city of Saigon, thousands of Catholics met yesterday evening in a prayer vigil at the Redemptorist convent, to ask the government to give back to the Church 15 acres of land seized for commercial purposes. The Superior of the order asks all the faithful of the country to support the Redemptorists, who have conducted demonstration in Hanoi.

Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) - Thousands of Catholics gathered yesterday evening in a prayer vigil at the Redemptorist convent, to ask the government to give back to the Church 15 acres of land belonging to the religious order, now occupied by government buildings. It was the largest, and probably the first, anti-government protest held in the city since the communists took power in 1975.

A Redemptorist priest says, "The protest . . . is to show our solidarity with our brother Redemptorists in Hanoi, to ask the government to stop the militia’s intervention in favour of new constructions, and put justice into practice”.

In a message sent last January 7 to all the Redemptorists in the country, the provincial superior Fr Joseph Cao Dinh Tri says the local government has illegally confiscated land belonging to their monastery at Thai Ha, Hanoi and is supporting a construction project there. The previous day, the government had sent security forces to the spot, to allow the Chien Thang Sewing Company to build on the land in question.

The Redemptorists in Hanoi, Fr Cao continues, "have responded by gathering people to pray at the construction site, asking the government to respect fairness and put justice into practice. I would earnestly implore all of you, the whole province of Vietnam, to be in solidarity with our brother Redemptorists in Hanoi, in order to pray for our common apostolate".

The priests faced a number of problems in organising the protest: their website, which contained the details about participating, was attacked by hackers and was not available again until last January 10.

The Redemptorists arrived in Vietnam arrived in 1925. Since then, the order has evangelised many of the northern provinces: in 1928, they bought 15 acres of land in Thai Ha to build a convent and a church. The inaugural Mass for the monastery was celebrated on May 7, 1929, while the church was inaugurated in 1935.

In 1941, there were 17 priests, 12 brothers, 26 seminarians, and 11 novices living in the convent in Thai Ha. Their numbers continued to grow until 1954, when Vietnam was divided into two distinct parts. In that year, many Redemptorists were forced to flee to South Vietnam. Fathers Joseph Vu Ngoc Bich, Denis Paquette, and Thomas Côté remained in Hanoi, together with brothers Clement Pham Van Dat and Marcel Nguyen Tan Van.

The communist government, which is officially atheist, subjected them to very harsh treatment, which soon turned into persecution. On May 7, 1955, Fr Marcel Nguyen was arrested, and died in prison four years later. Fr Denis Paquette was deported in 1958; a year later it was Fr Thomas Côté's turn. On October 9, 1962, the police arrested Brother Clement Pham, who died in prison after eight years of confinement.

Since then, Fr Joseph Vu has overseen the church alone. The government has confiscated nearly all of the 15 acres on which it stands, building a hospital on some of it and selling the rest to state-owned companies or to members of the government.

The priests, religious, and faithful of Thai Han have repeatedly asked for the land to be given back. In support of their request, they recall that they never signed any agreement to hand the land over to the government, not even under conditions of coercion.

The Catholics recall that the constitution, which safeguards religious freedom and places of worship, and emphasize in particular that directive 379/TTG, which requires the authorities to give back the land and assets that it has confiscated, if the government does not require them for urgent purposes. Furthermore, they recall that the ordinance PL-UBTVQH11 of 2004 states that the legal property of places of religious belief and of religious organizations is protected by law, and any violation of this right is forbidden.

But in spite of all this, the authorities of the district of Dong Da insist that they want to seize even more land from the parish. Nonetheless, the protest on January 6 has forced them to withdraw their soldiers who were guarding  the new construction that is underway.

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